Bond … James Bond
Posted: 25 August 2012 05:28 PM   [ Ignore ]
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This question is more about genre origins, but I’d appreciate any input.

It never really occurred to me before to wonder what the origin of the spy/secret agent genre was. Obviously there must have been predecessors. Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe, and many others are similar but not the same. Conrad even had a novel called The Secret Agent which dealt with an anarchist terrorist who let off a bomb--obviously not the same concept. James Bond figures are so much an element of modern life (or the art that imitates it) it’s hard to imagine a world without a secret agent.

Was Bond the first of his kind?

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Posted: 25 August 2012 05:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Spy Fiction.

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Posted: 25 August 2012 10:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Thanks. It looks as if W.S. Maugham’s Ashenden is the closest progenitor. I’ve read most of Maugham’s short stories but very few of his novels, so I don’t have the flavor of the main character to compare to Bond. Judging by the Wikipedia article, it seems fair to say that after WWI there was a decrease in interest in the spy novel and perhaps an uptick in interest in movies based on these.

I probably should have mentioned that what prompted the question was Heinlein’s short story, Gulf, published in 1949. Needless to say, there is a lot of advanced technology (for the day) and the character’s exploits bear a lot of similarity to the high-stakes cat and mouse games of Fleming’s novels. He isn’t quite the womanizer Bond is, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility either. It’s interesting, to me anyway, that the “superhero” aspect of the professional spy pre-existed Bond in the form of a sci-fi character.

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Posted: 26 August 2012 10:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (1951) features an agent of a secret government agency as its protagonist.  If you’re at all familiar with it (there was a so-so but reasonably faithful movie adaptation made in 1994) you’ll know that it also has strong sf elements (as you would expect from Heinlein).  It’s one of a number of stories that came out in the 50’s about aliens invading surreptitiously by taking over human beings, which are [the stories, not the human beings] typically regarded as metaphors for, or at least inspired by the fear of, communist subversion in the US and other western democracies.  The most famous of these is probably Jack Finney’s (Invasion of)The Body Snatchers) but Heinlein’s novel came out several years earlier.

Puppet Masters was set in the near future, and there wasn’t a lot of fancy sf tech.  As I recall, they had flying cars, and implanted phones, and the agent had some fancy gloves ("I could stir boiling sulfuric acid with my hand while wearing them, yet feel a dime in the dark and call heads or tails,” or words to that effect), but his gun still fired slugs of lead.(Edit: Wikipedia says they had rayguns.  I don’t recall this, but it’s possible my memory has conflated elements of the book and movie.)

[ Edited: 26 August 2012 05:00 PM by Dr. Techie ]
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Posted: 26 August 2012 04:13 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I’d point to Hitchcock’s 1946 Notorious as a spy story in the modern mold. It even features a suave and debonair secret agent played by Cary Grant who romances a beautiful woman (Ingrid Bergman). Grant’s character is supposed to be American, but is distinctly British in tone, as one might expect from Grant. He’s clearly a prototype for Bond. The film is based on a 1921 short story, The Song of the Dragon, by John Taintor Foote, but since the film is about hunting Nazis and a rocket fuel formula, obviously a lot was changed in the adaptation. I don’t know how much the 1921 story has in common with the modern spy genre; my guess is not much.

I wouldn’t expect spy stories in the modern mold to emerge before WWII. It was during the war, and during the Cold War that followed, when espionage became professionalized and institutionalized. Before that, it was a distinctly amateur and ad hoc affair. There might be stories about spies and espionage, but a James Bondian figure wouldn’t have been conceived of earlier.

[ Edited: 26 August 2012 04:18 PM by Dave Wilton ]
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Posted: 26 August 2012 10:49 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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My all-time favourite spy story is “Our Man in Havana” by Graham Greene – a brilliant spoof of the entire genre, and of the profession too. It was made into an equally hilarious movie starring Alec Guinness and Noel Coward. I think Greene is at his best in his thrillers and adventure stories (though he probably saw them as no more than fluffy hackwork) – when he gets deadly serious and moralistic, his stuff is about as exciting (and as digestible) as old, cold suet pudding.

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Posted: 27 August 2012 03:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I’d add Greene’s 1955 The Quiet American to the list of great, unconventional spy novels. It’s not funny, like Our Man in Havana, but it’s a devastating critique of covert action and professional intelligence organizations. Plus the book predicts the American debacle in Vietnam ten years before large numbers of US troops even arrive in the country. And I wonder if Green deliberately wrote the title character of Alden Pyle to be the antithesis of Fleming’s Bond. It’s probably not deliberate, but that’s the result.

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Posted: 27 August 2012 08:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Our Man in Havana inspired John le Carre’s The Tailor of Panama though he didn’t use vacuum cleaner parts as a basis for the imposture. Pierce Brosnan, a James, James Bond, was in the film version and I think le Carre complained later he was too handsome for the part.
His A Perfect Spy is the best spy novel ever IMHO.

They must be as old as history: I was wondering about the translation and from the same page

Some people think the word “spies” is an incorrect translation. In Chapter 13 of Numbers, the Hebrew word describing the group is the word usually translated as ‘men’ or the word usually translated as ‘princes’. In addition, the twelve were clearly not trained as spies, nor did they conduct any covert activity nor did they enlist any indigenous people for later help. Thus the phrase “Twelve Scouts” or “Twelve Observers” might be an alternate way of describing the group

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Posted: 27 August 2012 10:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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They are indeed old as the hills. The locus classicus is the episode in the Iliad. I’ll let Thomas Nashe give the details:

Ulysses, Nestor, Diomed went as spies together in the night into the tents of Rhaesus, and intercepted Dolon, the spy of the Trojans; never any discredited the trade of intelligencers but Judas, and he hanged himself.

In fact spying figures in the work from which I’ve just quoted, Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller, 1594. The scene is set in the English camp at Terouanne during one of Henry VIII’s brief campaigns in France. Jack Wilton, a rascally page and the hero of the novel, persuades a foolish young fellow that his fortune will be made if he goes over to the French camp, persuades them that he is a renegade, and spies out the disposition of their forces. Why, he might even find himself in a position to do away with the French monarch thus earning undying fame and the gratitude of his countrymen.

Very earnestly he conjured me to make no man living privy to his departure, in regard of his place and charge, and on his honour assured me his return should be very short and successful. Aye, aye, shorter by the neck (thought I); in the meantime let this be thy posy: I live in hope to scape the rope.

Gone he is; God send him good shipping to Wapping, and by this time, if you will, let him be a pitiful poor fellow, and undone forever; for mine own part, if he had been mine own brother I could have done no more for him than I did, for straight after his back was turned, I went in all love and kindness to the marshal general of the field, & certified him that such a man was lately fled to the enemy, & got his place begged for another immediately.

Things, alas, do not go well for our budding spy over in the French camp. Having bragged to them how close he is to the English king, privy to all his secrets, he tells of his hatred for Henry, and asks for an interview with the king. The French smell a rat and do a Joan-of-Arc style switcheroo.

Then began he to smell on the villain so rammishly that none there but was ready to rent him in pieces, yet the minion king kept in his choler, and propounded unto him further, what of the King of England’s secrets (so advantageable) he was privy to, as might remove him from the siege of Terouanne in three days. He said divers, divers matters which asked longer conference, but in good honesty they were lies which he had not yet stamped. Hereat the true King stepped forth, and commanded to lay hands on the losel, and that he should be tortured to confess the truth, for he was a spy and nothing else.

He no sooner saw the wheel and the torments set before him but he cried out like a rascal, and said he was a poor captain in the English camp, suborned by one Jack Wilton (a nobleman’s page), and no other, to come and kill the French King in a bravery and return, and that he had no other intention in the world.

The French fall about laughing, deciding the man is a complete idiot.

Adam never fell till God made fools; all this could not keep his joints from ransacking on the wheel, for they vowed either to make him a confessor or a martyr with a trice; when still he sung all one song, they told the King he was a fool, and that some shrewd head had knavishly wrought on him, wherefore it should stand with his honour to whip him out of the camp and send him home.

Forgive the length of the post, I just find Nashe so funny that I can’t resist quoting from him. I’ll be good in future though, else I may end up getting well-deserved TLDRs in response!

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Posted: 27 August 2012 12:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Homer was big on intrigue and spy stories. Charlotte Higgins of The Guardian had this to say:

Spy stories are as old as storytelling itself, so they clearly have some fundamental pull. The original spy is of course Odysseus – first of all in the rather unpleasant tale of his and Diomedes’ night-time intelligence-gathering trip in Iliad book 10, when they capture and kill the Trojan Dolon after interrogating him. In the Odyssey, though, the entire epic hangs on the hero’s secrecy, lying and his creation of effective “cover” (as a merchant, as a beggar, and so on) as he slowly negotiates his path back home to Ithaca and, crucially, finds a way to defeat the suitors who have been importuning his wife and occupying his palace. In flashbacks of various kinds, we also get the classic spy stories of the wooden horse, and a wartime foray of his into Troy disguised as an old woman. What can I say? George Smiley is but a footnote to Homer. But a very good one.

The rest of her short article is here.  http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/charlottehigginsblog/2009/jan/13/classics-classics

It isn’t Nashe, but she does include a bit more spy detail.

ed. to spell Nashe

[ Edited: 27 August 2012 12:46 PM by Liza ]
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Posted: 27 August 2012 02:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Nice encapsulation. And of course there’s Sinon who, in the performance of a lifetime (scripted by that man of many wiles, the artful Ulysses) persuaded the Trojans that they really must have that horse inside their walls even if they have to lift it over them and to pay no attention to that crazy old coot Laocoon’s insistence that Ulysses and a bunch of fully-armed Greeks could be hiding in there. “Timeo Danaos indeed! Rather, never look a gift horse in the tummy I say.”

Source: Virgil, Aeneid Bk II

I love Our Man in Havana too, lionello, book and film. And to Guiness and Coward I’d add Ernie Kovacs. Not a natural actor but he was perfect for this role. And what an inspired comedian that man was! (Another great espionage book and film: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

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Posted: 27 August 2012 06:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Well, while we’re on the subject of film adaptations of Le Carre, and while I have no objection at all to Richard Burton’s performance in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, I’d put my vote in for the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy miniseries with Alec Guinness playing Smiley (not the recent remake, which I haven’t seen). That’s one of the rare film adaptations that is better than the novel, and the novel is excellent.

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Posted: 28 August 2012 02:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Gary Oldman (as ever) gives a sterling performance in the remake, which is an excellent movie, although time restraints mean that the plot doesn’t really have room to breathe and it shows. Guiness, in the TV adaptation, was perfection itself as Smiley (who also pops up briefly in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, played by Maigret actor Rupert Davies.)

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